Monday 30 January 2017

Yakuza 0

The Yakuza series has always struggled to find much of a following with western gamers. Despite its massive success in Japan, the complicated backstory – which has spanned more than a decade, six core series entries and four spin-off titles – coupled with its very Japanese outlook, doesn’t encourage gamers to give the series a chance. What we get with the new prequel title Yakuza 0 however, is a more accessible jumping-on point for potential new fans, free of any preconceptions.

The story is standard crime-story fare. A standard debt collection goes horribly awry when the man you were simply meant to be intimidating turns up dead. Playing as Kazuma Kiryu – the long-time series protagonist – you must prove your innocence and in turn help protect the head of your Yakuza family. Kazuma is somewhat of a blank slate, and not terribly emotional or full of beans, but it is good to find out more about the events that shaped his life.

The more exciting parts of the game see you playing as Goro Majima – a recurring antagonist from the Yakuza franchise – known as the Mad Dog. What is interesting about Goro is that his story of redemption and his quest to rejoin his Yakuza family lets us see just what made him into the unhinged maniac that we have come to love/hate. Running a Hostess bar as a punishment, there are lots more laughs, but a new club management game mode which is available when playing as Goro. The two different story threads of course cross-over and intertwine as you work your way through the game, and this is certainly a hefty title. With seventeen lengthy chapters to play through, with lots of collectable items and upgradeable skill trees to complete, this won’t be an experience that you blitz your way through.

By the same token however, you can choose to quickly dip in and out of Yakuza 0. There are so many interesting side quests and mini-games to divert your attention from the main missions, but these act as nice short experiences for when you want a quick burst of play. A lot of character and humour is added to proceedings by the random encounter missions. Not only can you find other fighters willing to teach you skills, but school children need Girlfriend advice, nervous Policemen need your reassurance, and you can help return stolen goods to an infant. There are some very strange quests to take part in, but most will raise a chuckle, or at least a wry smile.

There are a huge number of other pursuits that can occupy your time, including restoring your health levels by visiting the local restaurants, getting drunk at a bar, and playing an ill-advised game of darts, or betting in illegal Mah-Jong parlours. The addition of a new Disco-Dancing mini-game helps lend to the eighties atmosphere, and is a lot of fun to boot. You won’t soon run out of things to do, but despite these activities, the most famous aspect of the Yakuza series is the over-the-top, brutal fighting style.

The fighting system is largely the same as previous series entries, however the ability to hot-switch between three different fighting styles for each character is a new and welcome change. Having a balanced, heavy, or quick fight style each, you can strategise to use the most suitable style to take down each individual enemy, based on their style – this adds a lot more variety to every fight. The long-established Heat action finishing moves remain ever-present – which are devastating and ultra-violent finishing moves, which somehow maintain a cartoon-like innocence to them.

Yakuza 0 manages to take the tried and tested formula that has been developed over the last twelve years and manages to evolve it in several new ways, whilst also smartly opening it up to newcomers. Anyone could pick the title up and quickly become absorbed in the unique atmosphere of the Yakuza series. It has many quirks, long cutscenes and no English dubbing, but these quibbles shouldn’t put you off what is a purely fun and complete package, and a title which you’ll be playing for a long time.

Final Verdict: From zero to hero 

Robin Parker

Yakuza 0 at CeX

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